Since the Sixth National and International Information Rights Congress was held in Mexico City this past month, the subject broached has been in the public eye more than usual. It’s just too bad that coordinators of the event missed another chance this year to strengthen environmental information access while they were addressing legal measures for community right-to-know.
Legal tools guaranteeing access to information are a crucial part of democratization, participatory government, and accountability. With the evolution of organized civil society and the routing of single-party presidential rule, Mexico has been a leader in the drive for mandatory information access in Latin America.
The effort is evident in the 5-year-old movement for the effective application of the new Federal Transparency and Governmental Public Information Access Law that took effect in mid-2003. The measure is a national freedom of information act that states are adopting.
Its implications for government transparency at the federal and state levels, as well as media law and protection for journalists, were the crucial topics of the congress hosted at the Juridical Research Institute of the Mexican National Autonomous University (UNAM) in November 2005.
But apparently neither the myriad information and media law specialists on the organizing committee nor the prestigious Konrad Adenauer Foundation representatives in charge of helping fund the event have yet taken seriously environmentalists’ decade-long struggle to implement a toxics inventory mandating public disclosure of industrial pollution discharges. Otherwise the congress would have had the issue of the Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR) on the agenda.
The PRTR goes a step further than the freedom of information act by requiring not only that officials divulge data but also that private production facilities do. A 2001 federal legislative reform of the country’s general environmental law forced the government to institute the PRTR in order to live up to accords signed under the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and under the North American Free Trade Agreement’s Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC).
The pollutant register is necessary to collect statistics, so that the government has a database on which to draw when an individual makes a freedom-of-information request. In short, the PRTR and the freedom of information act must go hand in hand.
Because this key fact eluded the congress, I want to dedicate the following words to providing a brief update on just how close and yet how far Mexico is from achieving a pollutant register like those in place for years in the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Mexico is poised to become the first country in Latin America with a mandatory, public inventory of industrial sites’ hazardous waste. But some industry leaders still buck the tide, and with presidential elections looming next year, the legal battles for the PRTR so hard won by civil society stand to be overturned in a new administration.
Meanwhile, the Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (Semarnat) says it expects only about 11,000 of the 30,000 industrial plants with federally regulated toxic waste to report theirs in the first round of filing that was set to end in December 2005. What’s more, the temporary list of 104 substances and thresholds the sites must report is sorely in need of technical improvement.
The entire process of getting the PRTR up and running is so flawed that it will result in a practically useless data release in June 2006, when the statistics are to become public for the first time ever. Lack of corporate responsibility combined with no federal budget for monitoring and enforcement of reporting will have the bad side effect of making companies that report look worse than the ones that fail to comply.
However, all is not lost. At least the process is underway. The federal government must proceed with forums to build administrative capacity and train businesses how to report; it has to receive and respond to input from various sectors in so doing. States have to take on their share of the responsibility.
Legal and journalism experts, such as those at the information rights congress, have to put more effort into making PRTR implementation a reality. They should be pitching in to fine-tune its mechanisms and raising public awareness of its importance as a community right-to-know instrument.
Foundations should insist that recipients of their money for enhancing information access connect the dots between the PRTR effort and general freedom-of-information activities. Polluters should take a proactive approach to dealing with the release of their data, using it to help themselves clean up their act and their image.
Last but not least, environmental organizations need to find support for their efforts to help set criteria and standards for substances reported, as well as position themselves to aid people in using the PRTR for constructive purposes, once it begins to function.